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Becoming a citizen

This is an election year, and a hot button political issue for both parties has been the status of illegal immigrants. This is certainly not the first time this issue has been a point of debate among the politicians. Our immigrant ancestors were also the subject of debate many decades ago!

After World War I, many refugees left war-torn Europe for a better life in America. They were unable to come here during the war and now they were determined to get away from their destroyed towns and start over. After many came here, the government, bowing to political pressure, put literacy tests, and eventually, immigration quotas, into law, thus preventing many more from coming to our country.

For those who were already here, there were many issues to face. First of all, should they stay in America, or should they make as much money as they can and then return home? Around 50 percent of Italian immigrants returned home, but many of them came back to America eventually. Conditions had not improved, and the money in America was too good to pass up.

Another decision was whether to learn English or just speak Italian or one of the country’s many dialect. Many of our immigrant ancestors did not have the leisure time to learn English due to the long workdays. If they lived in a neighborhood with others of their region, they could get through almost everything in life without needing English. However, if they needed to speak English to deal with their employer or customers, it would be imperative to learn what they could.

Their status as immigrant “aliens” is illustrated by the fact that they were called “Wops” which stands for “Without Papers.” I don’t know why other non-Italians weren’t called Wops, if they weren’t citizens and had no “papers.” In any case, if there was pressure to get some papers, then our ancestors had to make a final decision whether to stay here and then start the legal process.

First they had to go to court and declare their intention to become citizens. They filled out a government form, appropriately called the Declaration of Intention. This started the process of waiting for two to five years to fulfill a residency requirement. It didn’t matter that you lived here for 40 years before!

Once you filed the declaration (also known as “First Papers”), your countdown to citizenship started. At this point, you signed a form that stated that you renounced allegiance to the government of your birth country. Most of the forms mention the name of the King of Italy at the time, or Mussolini later on.

After waiting to fulfill the residency requirement, you would go back to court and fill out the Petition for Naturalization form. This is a genealogical goldmine, which we’ll discuss later. The judge had to grant the petition and would issue a Certificate of Naturalization. Now you have “papers”! You’re an American citizen!

By the way, please note that, before 1922, women would automatically get citizenship if their husbands were granted citizenship. After 1922, women had to apply on their own. What this means for you is that if your grandpa became a citizen in 1918, grandma did not have to apply and thus there are no papers for her.

Please also note that if your ancestor became a citizen before 1906 (which was when the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service was founded), the paperwork has very little information of genealogical value. When they changed the forms in 1906, they asked for a lot more data, and this is the information we can use.

So how can we find these forms? No, Nonna did not leave a copy in that old trunk in the attic. She might have left a copy of the Certificate, but this paper only has her name, the date, physical description, maybe a photo, and that’s about it.

It is a great family relic, but does not have much genealogical value.

To find and get copies of the Declaration and the Petition, you need to look in a special index. It is called the “Soundex Index to Naturalization Petitions for the US District & Circuit Courts for the Northern District of Illinois & INS District 9, 1840-1950 (M1285).” Whew! (If your ancestor did not live in the Chicago area or surrounding counties, they will not be in this index. Check with the National Archives web site to find out which district they might be in.)

And you’re in luck! The index has been made available through the FamilySearch.org website at this page. Search for the name of your ancestor and you will be able to view a card containing their information. Each card looks like this:

You need to use the birth date to decide if this is indeed your immigrant ancestor, or some other person. There is also a street address where they lived at the time they filed the petition. If you have found the right person, you need to copy EVERYTHING from this soundex card. You will need it. While you’re in the same soundex code, you can look for other aunts or uncles with the same surname, if you wish.

Now, look at the name of the court, which is located on the card you found. If it is a U.S. District Court, then it is a federal court and the records can be found at the National Archives. Visit the National Archives website for how to order copies of the records at this page. If the court says “Superior Court” or “County Court,” you will need to contact the clerk of that court for information on how to order copies of the records.

No matter which court you need to work with, use the information on the soundex card, especially the declaration number and the petition number to order the records. Copy everything exactly as it appears on the soundex card, even if that information might be slightly inaccurate. They need that information to find the file.

So now that you’ve done all this work, what do you find?

The declaration is usually a one-page document, but usually has some good information on it. It starts out with a name and physical description, followed by the birth town in Italy and the full birth date. This is followed by the port of emigration from Italy and the name of the ship. Then the immigrant renounces allegiance to the ruler of Italy. Lastly, the part of arrival and the date of arrival are listed. What a surprise to find that Nonno came through Galveston, Texas, not New York! You can use the name of the ship and the date of arrival to narrow down which person is yours and which one isn’t on the passenger list, too.

The petition for naturalization is the mother lode (or father lode so to speak!) The petition starts out with basically the same information that was found on the Declaration of Intent. Then it mentions the name of the spouse and the spouse’s birthdate and birthplace. Then there is a section where it lists all living children of the couple, with birthdates and birthplaces! This is a major find for those who are not sure whether the uncles and aunts were born in Italy or here. In the example above, you can see that two children were born in Partanna, Sicily; two were born in Houston; and two in Chicago!

Now please keep in mind that not everyone bothered to become a citizen. Some of our ancestors died too young and never completed this process. Some may have returned to Italy during the residency requirement and their citizenship application was rejected. Minor children might have become citizens from their father’s application, so there won’t be a separate set of papers for them with all this juicy information. Also keep in mind that women who did file their own applications did so under their married name. In the passenger lists, they used their maiden name even if they were married.

So, now you can find your ancestor’s citizenship paperwork and quite literally a “boatload” of new information!

About Dan Niemiec

Dan Niemiec has been the genealogy columnist for Fra Noi since 2004. For the past 25 years, he has researched his genealogy back 17 generations, plus tracing descendants of his ancestors, yielding 74,000 relatives. His major focus is on civil and church records in Italy, Chicago vital records, Chicago Catholic records and most major genealogy web sites. He has given dozens of presentations to many local and some national genealogy societies on topics such as cemetery research, Catholic records, Italian records, Ellis Island and newspaper research, among others.